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What is a “Performance Mindset” Anyway?

There certainly is an abundance of theories out there telling us how we should think and what our attitude should be. We are told to have a growth mindset, to be optimistic, and that mindfulness is the key to success

Each perspective brings valid points, but what if I told you that a fixed mindset has its place? Pessimism can be protective and negative thoughts can be motivating. There are times to be analytical and times to play free. There are times to be determined and gritty, and times to let go and relax. There is no ‘magic pill’ mindset. Aside from perhaps when it comes to our most basic needs, few catch-all solutions exist.

For example, in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson describes the benefits of “deliberate practice” for developing expertise in multiple domains. It is excellent material and at Valor, we have adopted similar tenets in our curriculum such as the need for intention and focused effort to develop expertise. That said, in Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein points out that many performers take a different path to excellence and infers that Ericsson’s approach doesn’t explain the full breadth of elite performance in all situations. There are times to practice intentionally toward very specific objectives and there are times to let go of this intentionality and allow for freedom of thought and mistakes. When it comes to developing the mind and performance, there are no absolutes. It’s a matter of having the right mindset at the right time.

In order to simplify the complexity of mindset into a practical and effective process, it’s best to begin with considering the behavioral process rather than complicated brain functioning. While accurate brain imaging is still being developed, behavior is observable. Whether you are a doctor, soldier, executive, salesperson, or an athlete, high performance comes down to three activities: 1) Preparation/Planning, 2) Execution of tasks and plans, and 3) Rest/recovery.  If you master these three activities and the corresponding mindset required for each, then you are well on your way to your goals.  

The three essential mindsets for Performers and Leaders: 

Preparation/Planning Mindset: The preparation/planning mindset is the mindset of higher-order thinking and includes critical thinking and problem-solving. Examples of this include prepping for a presentation, researching a client, learning or refining skills, or project planning. Expertise is achieved through deliberate practice and it is this intentional mindset that allows people to grow and create. In the preparation/planning mindset, new memories are encoded in the brain and, with increased self-monitoring and reflective thinking, people improve in self-awareness and self-regulation. 

Performance Mindset: As the name infers, the performance mindset is the mindset best for execution. Examples are giving a presentation, performing a surgical procedure, completing a golf putt, even writing a report. The experience is described sometimes as “automatic” or “smooth.” While this mindset may provide room for creativity and improvisation, it is marked by a lack of self-monitoring and analytical thought. People with this mindset have a deep feeling of acceptance and trust in preparation. People with a performance mindset typically are laser-focused on just one thing, and while a great deal of determination is present so is a sense of calm or composure. 

Recovery Mindset: The preparation mindset and performance mindset need to be balanced by recovery. While the recovery mindset may include a calming of neural activity, it primarily encompasses the choice to recharge through whatever means best fits the individual and situation. This may range from deep breathing, to exercise, to spending quality time with loved ones. This recovery mindset allows for emotional flexibility and provides feelings of freedom and balance.

The key to being effective in whatever you do is your capability to shift between these mindsets. Depending on the situation, you may have to go back and forth between these mindsets multiple times within minutes of each other. This takes a high degree of Mental Agility. 

The great news is that shifting between mindsets is a learnable skill! Each mindset is a choice and, with time and practice, you can learn personalized techniques (cue words, breathing techniques, triggers, etc) to ensure your mind is in the right place at the right time!

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